Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Ripping Adventure

During this trip I've been trying to flee Winter by cleverly oscillating north and south depending on the seasons, however I don't think I'll escape the start of Winter here in China. As we got off the train at 7am in Datong our breaths were visible in the crisp morning air (something I haven't seen for some time now) and it's still only September! Datong is probably the largest coal-producing centre in China, with Shanxi province extracting fully one third of the country's 900 million tonnes of the black stuff. You guys may be wondering whether I have suddenly developed a new interest in heavy industry, but in fact Datong is also the site of the incredible Yungang caves. The caves, dating from the 5th and 6th centuries AD stretch along the side of a mountain and are said to contain over 50,000 Buddha statues. OK, most of them are quite small, but a bunch of them stand (or sit) at well over 10m, and some of the caves have even retained their beautiful colours. Not bad after 1500 years and with a huge, ugly coal plant just over the road spewing out its sooty smoke.

Further south from Datong are a couple of little oddities that I found intriguing. The first was the hanging monastery of Xuankong Si, which manages to somehow defy gravity clamped to the side of a cliff face (see picture). There's also a massive wooden pagoda in the neighbourhood that's almost 1000 years old and supposedly made without using a single nail. It would have been nicer though if they had some information about the place in English, as I'm rather anal when it comes to that sort of stuff.

I also had to baptise my brother to the joys of hiking up Chinese sacred mountains and so took him to Wutai Shan (yes that's right, it's time for another Chinese holy hill, but I'm pretty sure this is my last one for this trip). Unfortunately Mark wussed out half way up the mountain and decided to head back down, though luckily I found myself a friendly Canadian with whom to continue to the top. It's a pity really, as Wutai Shan is unlike any of the mountains I've been up in China because it is almost devoid of the tourist hordes that have marred the other ones. The climb was therefore quite enjoyable and the closest I've got to "nature" here. But the best was reserved for the descent, when I had the clever idea of going down the mountain a different way. I should have learnt by now not to have any bright ideas, but some people never learn I suppose. It started off OK when we toboganned along the grassy slopes, though that stopped when I split my trousers down the crotch! Then we found a dry stream bed that we thought we could follow down to the valley, but that soon became overgrown and impassable. Then we had to plough our way through a dense fir forest, getting absolutely covered in needles in the process, before we eventually got back onto the same path that we had ascended! It was great fun, but now I've got to find myself a tailor to get my trousers fixed.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Wall Done

I've been in Beijing now a few days and have got an hour to spare before I'm outta here on the night train to Datong. It's definitely an interesting city, though I'm not sure whether I like it that much. It's ridiculously large and getting around is very tiresome. The roads are far too wide which, coupled with the Chinese inability to drive properly, makes crossing the road a rather perilous affair. The large number of cars also makes the air polluted. I'm not sure how polluted, but suffice to say that even on the clearest of days there's a pall over the city and I've managed to develop a cough in the 4 days I've been here. That said, there are some amazing imperial relics to be seen, such as the famous Forbidden City, which lies slap-bang in the middle of Beijing, where the emperors ruled the nation from a self-imposed seclusion, and also the Summer Palace, with its gardens and lakes. In Tian'anmen Square, before the Forbidden City, you also have Chairman Mao's "maosoleum", where the Great Helmsman has been laid to rest. Unfortunately I didn't get to go in as the opening times and my ability to turn up didn't synchronise. But that's probably a good thing as I don't know whether I would have been able to remain respectful in the fat bastard's presence. Due to his lunatic policies it is estimated that between 30 and 80 million of his own people died during what is euphemistically known as the Great Leap Forward. Plus his Cultural Revolution destroyed a large part of the nation's cultural history (no time to rant about that now, but I hope to come back to the topic in a later post). And so logically they put his face on every bank note and plant statues of him in every town. The official party line is that he was 70% right and only 30% wrong, though I'd dearly love to know what equation they used to come up with those figures.

Only a few hours drive north of Beijing is probably China's most famous tourist attraction. It is, of course, the Great Wall (or at least several sections of it, because it is rather long, measuring over 6000km in length). It was built in the most part about 500 years ago to keep out the mongol hordes who, when bored of hoarding boards, would launch devastating raids from the north. And because it's a defensive wall it was built on the craggiest and steepest hills the Chinese could find, an amazing feat of engineering. Seeing the wall snaking off into the distance along the crests of the hills is a truly awesome sight and definitely the highlight of China so far (plus the 10km hike was a nice little workout). Hopefully as I head west through China I'll be able to see it at a few other sites to see how similar they are.

Oh yeah, I also finally got my Pakistani visa yesterday after a lot of waiting around, for the ridiculously unreasonable price of $70! It's an outrage if you ask me: here I am wanting to spend money in their country and they're making me not want to go. It really isn't the sort of behaviour that will endear the country to travellers and get the tourist dollars flowing.

P.S. I hope I don't get kicked out of China early for calling Mao a fat bastard!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

New Arrival

I've now been in Beijing for a few days but haven't seen much for several reasons, the main one being that I've been running around trying to get my Pakistani visa sorted out. When I first turned up they insisted that I get a letter from the British embassy. Upon turning up there though the staff were rather perplexed by the request and had to call up the Pakistani embassy about the nature of the letter. Apparently it needed to state that I was, in fact, a British citizen. ? Something that evidently is not proven by my passport. Anyway, today, armed with my letter, I arrived at the embassy bright and early, hoping to get the application out of the way, and then they told me that I would have to attend an interview at 11am, thereby taking up my entire morning. The interview itself was a farce and I might just as well not have been there. But such are the bureaucratic hoops that one must jump through when travelling.

Anyway, my time in Beijing has been marked by the arrival of my brother Mark who will be accompanying me on my travels for the next 3 weeks (if we can stand each other for that long!). I've also met up with one of my former pupils, Reg, who is from Beijing, and so I've been lucky enough to have a local, knowledgeable guide. Apart from showing us around the Summer Palace he also answered many of my random questions about China, its people, their habits and politics that I'd kept pent up waiting for someone to unleash them on. For example, he gave me a good explanation as to why Oriental people prefer to squat, when waiting and generally loitering, rather than stand, like Europeans do. It's true, you see them everywhere: waiting for buses, chatting together or munching on a dumpling, they'll usually be squatting on their haunches. But apparently, according to Reg, it's because Orientals have slightly bowed legs and so standing up straight is rather uncomfortable for them whereas squatting is no problem. So there you go, another one of life's mysteries has been successfully solved and you can sleep peacefully now.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Another Day, Another Mountain

So that's another day spent clambering up and down a mountain and you might be beginning to wonder why the hell I bother. To be honest I'm not sure really, it's probably because I need the exercise. Anyway, this time it was Tai Shan, the most important of China's 5 Taoist mountains. According to Chinese mythology the first being, Pangu, creates everything, although it takes him considerably longer than the Judeo-Christian one, requiring 18,000 years to complete the task instead of just 6 days, and by the end he is understandably shagged out and so lies down to die. His various body parts become different parts of the earth, with his head becoming Tai Shan, hence its importance (so, what part of his body is your town made from?). It's not as pretty as the other mountains I've seen so far, but it makes up for it with oodles of temples, gates, pavilions, arches and steles; oh yes, and calligraphy. It seems like every emperor of China came up here to add his "tag" and some deep, wise philosophical quote (though it could just as well be sponge cake recipes for all the sense they make to me). Hardly a single stone escaped the royal graffiti brush. Oh, talking of quotes, apparently, seeing as Tai Shan is such a deeply spiritual place, this is where important people come to make memorable quotes. Confucius said "the world is small" whilst Chairman Mao said "the east is red". Erik Jelinek, being neither important nor philosophical, said "bloody hell, I'm knackered". But then, we can't all be great thinkers.

But wait, it hasn't all been mountains these past few days, I have also been nurturing my cultural education. Close to Huang Shan there are a couple of villages that have, miraculously, escaped China's rampant modernisation for long enough to be recognised as rather special. They retain a lot of original Ming and Qing architecture: narrow alleyways, beautiful courtyards and intricately carved wood panels. Plus, on the way up to Tai Shan I stopped off at Qufu, ancestral home of Confucius and his descendants, the Kongs. Kong Zi, as he is known to the Chinese, lived over 2500 years ago and his philosophy of respect for authority, social order and conservatism is one of the main reasons (at least in my opinion) that China developed so quickly into such a powerful empire. During the Dark Ages China was miles ahead of anybody else in pretty much every respect and could well have expanded far beyond its borders. Except for their introspective conservatism, another Confuscianist product (OK, perhaps an oversimplified view of Chinese history and culture, but I'm not writing a book on the subject, so there). And although Confucius was never valued in his own lifetime he has since become deified and his descendants became rulers of Qufu and are the oldest aristocratic family in China (the present head of the House of Kong is the 77th direct descendant of Confucius, though ironically he now lives in Taiwan). However I was a bit disappointed with the mansion and temple there as they had very little in the way of information and history.

Today is also the mid-Autumn festival here in China, which is apparently the second most important one after New Year. The festival represents the end of the harvest season and is a time of happiness and plenty when families get together and look at the bright, big moon together (fat chance of that happening here tonight though as the notorious Chinese haze is obscuring the view). But that doesn't interest me much really. What I'm really interested in are mooncakes. These are the traditional pastries that are eaten during the celebrations. Traditionally they are made with lotus seeds and egg yolk, but nowadays they come in a dizzying variety of flavours, both sweet and savoury (western companies have gotten in on the act too, with Haagen Dazs offering ice-cream mooncakes and Starbucks doing coffee and tea flavours). The closest comparison I can draw would be to British mince pies, and they are just as moreish. In fact, I find it hard to manage a day without having my mooncake "fix".

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Gotta Climb 'Em All

Reputedly the most famous and most beautiful mountain in China is Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain). Well, seeing as I've already climbed 2 I thought I might add another one to the list. And there's definitely no argument about it being pretty. For those of you who are closet geologists (and are too afraid to admit it) the mountain is a fine-crystal granite extrusion, dating from the Mesozoic era, with many longitudinal joints. Now I don't really know what all that means (although I did do geology at school) but one thing it does mean is that there are tons of crags, outcrops and dodgy-shaped rocks; and this being China many of them have obscure names such as "pig-headed monk eating watermelon" or "two cats chasing a mouse". The mountain is also home to many wild and endangered animals, but you won't see them due to the bellowing hordes of Chinese tourists. Ah well, it would've been worse during the holidays or on a weekend ... or if the entrance ticket cost less. I can't believe they charge $24 just to go up a mountain (plus you pay extra if you want to use the cable car). Though luckily I managed to get in for half price with my (fake) student ID which I bought in Bangkok (it's really turning out to be a tidy little investment). The mountain has the added bonus of having some (again, overpriced) hot springs at the bottom, so that after a days hiking you can pamper yourself (now where was that when I needed it after Emei Shan!).

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Not An Incidental Incident

I believe you can tell much about a people by the type of TV programmes they watch, and regular readers might remember my musings on Latin American telenovelas and Southeast Asia's love of karaoke. Well, China has its own TV obsession: violence in general and kung-fu in particular. It is hard to switch on a TV here without seeing either a kung-fu soap (personally I'm quite partial to them, especially the ridiculous slapstick comedy), or some low-budget, low quality war drama pitting the plucky locals against the dastardly Japs. Now I don't know what exactly this says about the Chinese, but it does let me link nicely to my next topic.

You see, I happen to be in Nanjing, which was the capital of China once during the early Ming dynasty and also at the beginning of the 20th century (Nanjing actually literally means "southern capital", whereas Beijing means "northern capital"). I wish the city were famous for its impressive city walls, which are the longest in the world, or for being the final resting place of Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China. Unfortunately it is most famous for the absolute blackness of its darkest hour. It is here that one of the worst wartime atrocities ever was committed during the Second Sino-Japanese War (the war started in 1937 and later merged into the chaos that became World War 2), or, as it's called here, The War Of Resistance Against Japanese Agression. This ugliest of events is known as the Rape of Nanking (although some Japanese history textbooks call it the Nanking Incident). After capturing the city in December 1937 the Japanese troops went on the rampage committing atrocities on the civilian population, some of which even I am too squeamish to write about. It is estimated that some 300,000 people were massacred in various brutal ways (at the memorial there's even a Japanese newspaper article from the time that describes a competition between 2 Japanese officers to kill as many Chinese as possible using only their swords; the winner managed 106) and over 50,000 women (from 7 to 77) were raped. I feel the massacre here was perhaps worse than the Jewish holocaust simply because the atrocities were committed individually, up close and personal, rather than "industrially". Learning about this makes me understand, at least partly, the general antipathy of the Chinese towards the Japanese; plus the Japanese don't do themselves any favours by stubbornly refusing to say they're sorry and instead state that they "regret what happened" (the difference may just be semantics, but it makes a lot of difference to some people).

Monday, September 12, 2005

Anniversary Edition

Wow. It was a year ago today that I set off from London to Mexico to start this trip and the last 365 days have really flown by. When I was planning the trip I didn't think I'd be here now ... in fact I thought I'd be well past here and somewhere in India. I've learnt that there's far more to see and that you should take your time. I mean, who would have thought that you could spend a whole month in Laos and still not see everything! Yep, the trip seems to keep getting longer and longer every time I try and plan ahead, something my parents probably aren't too chuffed with.

I thought I'd summarise my trip so far in a few figures. So up until now I've visited 14 countries (15 if you count Hutt River Province) and 4 continents. During my year I've also read 29 books, many of which I probably would not have read back home. I've spent 23 nights in buses, trains or trucks (I thought it would be more). As for how much time I've actually spent travelling i.e. sitting in buses, trains, etc., I'd rather not know really, but I think 3 months would be a reasonable guestimate. And although I'm keeping a note of how much I spend I haven't totalled it up, but I think 6,000 pounds (about $10,000 US) would be about right (which is about as much as I spend in a year back home). I've visited some 36 UNESCO world heritage sights (need to do better next year), countless temples and churches, a collection of museums and a fair few national parks. I've managed to learn to speak Spanish (something I'm more than a little proud of) and count in Thai and Chinese (I've already forgotten the little Viet I picked up). But, most importantly I think, I think I've got a better idea of world history and therefore the reason why we (people in general) are where we're at. I also hope I've got a little more tolerance towards people, though that may be wishful thinking.

So, what's planned for the coming year? Well, I'd dearly like to make it all the way back home overland and not have to fly unless it's absolutely necessary (which it may be to get to Sri Lanka and Myanmar), which may mean that I'll be writing another one of these bloody anniversary posts! More specifically, from here in eastern China I want to make my west and cross over into Pakistan over the Khunjerab pass; then I'd spend a bit of time in the subcontinent before heading back through Pakistan and into Iran. From there it's over the Caucasus and into Turkey ... and then I'm not sure. But that's already far too much planning already, god knows my plans will change a countless number of times by then. Though at least now you can have a wee look at the map and check out the proposed itinerary.

Well, that's enough maudlin from me; I'm off to check out some more museums. Orale bueyes, y hasta la proxima vez.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Don't Use That Tone With Me!

Ever since crossing into Thailand from Malaysia I've been struggling with tonal languages. What are tonal languages? Well, when languages began to develop the first words were monosyllabic (no need complicating things from the outset). Then, as more and more ideas needed to be expressed, some languages (Latin, Greek and their descendants, for example) decided that they would simply make the words longer, thereby allowing more combinations of sounds. The tonal languages, however, insisted on keeping each word down to a syllable and instead introduced different tonal inflections with which to differentiate the same syllable (e.g. a flat tone, a rising tone, a falling tone and even a falling-then-rising tone). A famous example in Chinese is "ma ma ma ma", which, depending on how you say it, can mean "did Mum scold the horse?"; or in Thai "ma ma ma ma ma" can be "mother, new wood burns, doesn't it?" But the one that takes the biscuit for me are the two Thai words klai and klai. The first one means near whilst the latter is far (or is it the other way round?). Chinese isn't too bad actually as it only has 4 tones. Thai/Lao has 5 and Vietnamese has 6! Anyway, being completely tone deaf I can hardly tell the difference either way. This poses problems when I try and say something in Chinese (or Viet or Thai for that matter) because I can never get the tones right, and that makes a great difference to the meaning of what you say. Plus, people here don't seem to be able to extrapolate what I'm trying to say or make allowances for the fact I'm foreign, and often just don't bother to make the effort to try and understand me, which can be very frustrating as I feel I'm really making an effort. I also find it hard not to raise my tone when I'm asking questions or inquiring about something. Still, it must be even more difficult for Australians who can't stop asking questions.

Anyway, today's stop is Suzhou. Known throughout the (horticultural) world for its traditional, landscaped gardens; complete with babbling brooks, lotus ponds, rockeries galore and plenty of pagodas. Although they are unarguably pretty they just aren't my cup of tea. I just find them too contrived and pretentious, as even the smallest gardens have about a hundred little nooks and crannies with the most preposterous of names (as a rule of thumb, the more unassuming the niche the more elaborate the name): "listening to maples pavilion", "rustling aroma island" or "hall of the 19 petunias". At least, because they are dotted around all over the city, they're nice to relax in (or would be if you didn't keep thinking about the entry fee). I may sound scathing but Suzhou is actually quite a cozy city with plenty of little canals criss-crossing the backstreets and ornate, arched bridges spanning them. Plus it's a very good place to pick up some cheap silk products, as it's the centre of the Chinese sericulture, and has been for the past 1000 years.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Thank Yous

I forgot to add a couple of big thank yous in my previous post (an occurrence that occurs more often than I'd like because I'm just far too scatty) so here they are.

Firstly I would like to thank Jean for being the first familiar face I've seen in over half a year, and also for showing me around her hometown of Haiyan and being an incredibly generous and gracious host. Although I met up with her for only a single day, it was a very welcome tonic.

Secondly I must thank my brother Mark for helping me out with British bureaucracy on two occasions now. When you're at home dealing with your bank, credit card company or insurer is, although tedious, very straightforward. When you're halfway round the world and unable to make phone calls and with no phone number of your own, these mundane problems become monumental. Mark has been invaluable in chasing up these companies on my behalf and then organising conference calls to sort out the problems (one mammoth session with my bank lasted nearly 2 hours).

So thank you, both of you.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

An Unendangered Animal

China is home to many animals that are on the brink of extinction: the Siberian tiger, the giant panda, the Siberian crane and the red-crowned crane to name but a few. There is, however, one species of crane that is very common throughout China: the common construction crane (as well as two minor subspecies, the skyscraper crane and the container crane). There is not a town in China that doesn't have at least one specimen, although their breeding ground seems to be here on the east coast, especially Shanghai.

Shanghai is a fascinating city. A sleepy, backwater fishing village just 150 years ago, the Europeans turned it into China's economic powerhouse and the world's busiest port. The vestiges of European domination can still be seen in the neo-classical and art-deco buildings that dot the city, especially the riverfront Bund, the erstwhile British jewel of Shanghai. The city was also a synonym for gambling, prostitution and opium dens, and so fell out of favour during Mao's communist tenure. But seeing as vice is now the flavour of the month Shanghai's back in business. The city's new renaissance is starkly represented by the Pudong area, which mirrors the Bund across the Huangpu river. There the architecture is more modern and definitely more hit-and-miss. The most striking being the Oriental Pearl Tower, which would give Prince Charles an apoplectic fit. But aesthetics aside, Shanghai has advanced dramatically in the last couple of decades (not that I was here 20 years ago, but I've seen before and after pictures).

I suppose that's one benefit of an autocratic state: there's far less discussion and pussyfooting about; when they want something done it gets done. Plus they don't have to worry about pestering NIMBYs and BANANAs interminably holding things up. Two construction projects demonstrate this particularly well: the maglev train that connects the city to the airport and the new deep water port. The maglev train is the fastest in the world and takes only 7 minutes to take its passengers the 30km to the airport, reaching a top speed of 431 km/h as it does so. (It's a German train, but they never managed to build it at home due to constant wranglings about cost and environmental impact.) Well, seeing as I'm here I had to go, so I bought myself a one-way ticket and then took the bus back into town (I wasn't willing to fork out the extra $4 to go back on it!). The deep water port is probably more impressive, but impossible to get to. As there aren't any suitable sites for a port on the coast the government has decided to build one on a cluster of tiny islets ... 30km out to sea! And they've got a road bridge going all the way out there.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Marco's Tip

I've finally made it to the east coast of China and my first stop here is the city of Hangzhou. There is a palpable difference between the east and its people from the west of China. Whereas Kunming and Chengdu were blatantly consumerist Hangzhou has gone far beyond that and is unbelievably bourgeois. Apart from the multitude of trendy bars, clubs and cafes there are the designer label stores and even luxury car showrooms (Bentley, Ferrari, Porsche et al.). But Hangzhou is not crass. It carries this wealth with a certain aristocratic gentility, somehow seeming aloof from the other cities I've visited so far. The beautiful Western Lake with its landscaped parks and intricate causeways forms a focal point for the city and it is the place to see and be seen. Indeed, when Marco Polo passed this way in the late 13th century and he didn't mince his words when he stated that Hangzhou was "beyond dispute the finest and the noblest (city) in the world". Unfortunately the city is mercilessly cashing in on its famed beauty and many of the sights have exorbitant entry fees that, after a while, lessen the allure of the place.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Busman's Holiday

During this past year I have taken countless bus journeys covering many thousands of miles and I believe, in all honesty, that I have become something of a bus connoisseur. I still rave about Argentine buses, but I must admit the Chinese have a novel way of dealing with long, overnight trips. Many people complain that it is hard to get a decent night's sleep, even with the seats tilted back as far as they can go. Well the wily Chinese have got rid of the seats completely and installed bunk beds instead (complete with sheets and blankets), with generally 3 rows of beds, 6 deep. This means that, although you can't really sit all too well, you get a good night's sleep. That is unless you are too tall or too fat or, heaven forbid, both (luckily I'm neither), in which case you're in for a long, uncomfortable ride.

By the way, I have also been tinkering with my site of late and I have now transferred all my pictures to a more user-friendly photo album and converted the old album into a site for audio only. And to inaugurate the fact I have added a new audio track, that of some chanting Tibetan monks.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Something Old, Something New

Hubei province isn't much of a tourist destination, but it contains two places that I have wanted to see since the start of the trip. The first is the mountain temple complex of Wudang Shan. I've met many people who haven't heard of it, but to any aficionado of kung fu movies they will instantly recognise it as the birthplace of Taijiquan (or T'ai Chi) and the perennial adversary of Shaolin (to hip-hop fans the name may be recognisable due to a famous rap band/posse/crew?). And because everybody goes to the Shaolin monastery I had to check out Wudang Shan and its crazy Taoist monks. The mountain monastery complex (remember, shan means mountain in Chinese) is very pretty with the requisite number of cliffs, peaks and isolated temples, most dating from the 15th century; unfortunately it's undergoing a major refit with tons of workers and scaffolding all around, which slightly detracted from the whole spiritual atmosphere that one expects after seeing the ending of Crouching Tiger. The place was also lacking in T'ai Chi masters jumping buildings in single bounds and fighting evildoers, though the town at the foot of the mountain has a sizeable foreign community made up of new-ager types learning martial arts from local, wizened masters (I even met this Australian guy who was planning to stay for 3 and a half years!). The town also has a nifty street of shops specialising in swords, spears, halberds and other metal, pointy objects whose main purpose is to hurt, maim and dismember (pretty cool actually). However, most people that you ever see practicing T'ai Chi are of the geriatric variety and they don't look very threatening at all. Actually you see a lot of these older T'ai Chi practitioners throughout China, especially in the earlier hours of the morning hogging the parks, and some of them are remarkably supple.

So that's the old. The new is close to the town of Yichang. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised as it's a town of only 4 million inhabitants, which is rather paltry for China (personally I'm intrigued as to what all these people actually do). The town is grim and boring, but it is the gateway to the 3 Gorges Dam, the world's largest construction project. (For the pedants out there the dam will be the largest in the world with the highest peak electricity generation capacity, but will lie in second place behind the Itaipu dam for annual production. That way both will be able to claim to be the biggest.) The sight of it was definitely impressive as it loomed out the haze that has been following me for the past couple of weeks. The haze made it impossible to see the entirety of the dam which gave it an almost ethereal, otherworldly quality. Being the organised fellow that I am I thought I could just turn up and be shown around the construction site by a personal guide ... and I wasn't wrong. Sort of. Officially you have to book on a tour, but the people in the next-door town have a nice little cottage industry going on showing tourists around by taking them through the "back door". So there I was clambering over barbed wire fences and wriggling through holes in walls, which was probably as exciting as seeing the actual building site itself. I'm still undecided about the dam itself. On the plus side it will produce the equivalent of 18 nuclear power stations-worth of electricity, may help ease flooding downstream and allow oceangoing vessels to sail 600km further upstream. On the downside it has hidden what was unarguably one of China's natural wonders and there is a possibility that the whole thing will silt up in the not-too-distant future. But then, that's the price of progress I suppose.